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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Something That Could Never Ever Possibly Destroy Us: Ghostbusters And Its Ghosts

Writing about the new Ghostbusters film is tricky because the kind of stuff I like doing--digging into thematics and interesting structural decisions and so on--is hard to get to when a film is so totally surrounded by a river of malevolent cultural ectoplasm. And you can't really do pure structural critique anymore anyway--that hasn't really been in vogue since the early 20th century, so acting like you can just strip something of its context is disingenuous at best.

Luckily Ghostbusters does a good enough job of anticipating and reacting to its social context that you can get at the structural stuff and the cultural stuff all at once.

It's impossible to ignore the fact that this film has faced a major backlash merely for existence. The simple audacity of it daring-to-be is outrageous to people who might best be describe as "shitheads." Now I've written plenty before about geeks being conservative culturally and politically, hostile to outsiders, and rabid in their determination to ban any new thought whatsoever in the field of ostensibly "speculative" fiction. There's no point in me really retreading it here because while things are certainly badone this is essentially just the world we live in. It's Tuesday, the nerds are raging again.

In an astonishing series of events Leslie Jones was harassed off of Twitter, in the most egregious case of nerds raging. Thankfully, this led finally to the banning from Twitter of Milo Yiannopoulos, a man who is doing his best to bring back the early 20th century "gay-for-fascists" aesthetic, and an utterly repulsive racist piece of shit in the same class as Vox Day and Mencius Moldbug.
But I still feel compelled to cover the film simply because of the way it stands in relation to its predecessor and how we can understand that from a metatextual perspective. It hasn't escaped the notice of viewers that this is a film very conscious of the fact that it's coming on the heels of a "classic" film, rebooting or remaking or retreading or rehashing the film with a gender swapped cast. That is after all what all the nerd rage is about. And the film's creators are quite aware of the context that surrounds them. Sometimes this self-awareness is abrasive... but other times it is quite compelling, compelling enough to spend some time picking apart.

Now, it's probably worth noting that I'm not necessarily making this argument in order to win over long term Ghostbusters fans, because I don't really... care so much about The Ghostbusters Legacy or whatever, and I'm not that interested in consecrating the wider franchise. Someone else can do that. And while I'm always a little skeptical of the "unpleasable fanbase" thing (often a tool of huge corporations like, yes, Sony, who can deride all criticism as simply a vocal minority of over-committed fans), when an actress is getting hatemobbed off social media I feel like we have to accept that we've gone way outside the realm of the reasonable and we're not gonna pull people back.

Instead I want to talk to people who already enjoyed the film enough that they'll be interested in some deeper analysis of what the film is trying to do... and ultimately I want to try giving an imperfect film what a shocking number of people refuse to give it:

A fair chance to receive meaningful analysis.








If I'm going to be fair, it's worth noting at the outset that there's places where the film's self-consciousness of its legacy gets a little grating, from my perspective. There's a point in the last scene for example where we get a namedrop reference to Zuul, which, I mean, it's fine, whatever, nice that they're throwing out a reference for the old fans or whatever, but it's not really something that does anything for me. It's a commercial in the same way that many of the post-credits Marvel scenes are commercials. It's promotion, not part of the narrative itself in any meaningful sense, and not really able to stand on its own the way, say, the end credit scene of Guardians of the Galaxy works as a gag just on sheer weirdness power alone, regardless of whether or not you're familiar with Howard the Duck as a character.

The Zuul reference feels more like the film going through the paces of franchise-building, and maybe most disappointingly it seems to be setting up a reference to the tape gag at the beginning of the film, then it just... doesn't.

But if that stood out to me as just reference for the sake of reference, there's other stuff in the film that engages previous material in a more interesting way... and more than that, engages the wider field in which the film exists. I think it's worth at least drawing a hazy line between the two, because the stuff that stood out to me as in some structural sense "working" better also is linked by a bunch of thematic preoccupations.

One of the more interesting dimensions to the film's use of old material is that it uses a kind of narrative fakeout. It moves towards things that we know are going to appear--simply by virtue of the fact that this is a Ghostbusters movie--and then swerves in another direction. I think that at its best these moments work as an interesting bridge between different ways of watching the film: watching the film as someone familiar with the existing material, or watching it as someone completely new to Ghostbusters-related stuff. These moments do a good job of bridging that gap because they work as jokes as long as you're aware of basic things like the title of the film and the logo and so on, but they also may have additional impact for someone deeply invested in the symbols and traditions of the franchise.

So, for example, we get a fun moment early on where they're talking about what their name should be, and the one character specifically says something to the effect of "I mean, if you're dealing with ghosts, who are you gonna call?" and in the background a voice from the TV shouts something like "Ghostdusters" or something like that, I don't recall the exact name, some ghost hunters style schlock TV show. And this is a moment when they seem to set up the lore of the film, but then psych us out, and go nope, that's not the REAL origin story of the name (which sort of emerges despite the best efforts of Erin who keeps trying to get a more scientifically respectable name to stick). Key to this series of related gags is the expectation of this being an origin story, an origin story which is consistently diverted or undermined.

Now, Moviebob--who I'll be picking on a few times in this article because, well, the man covered Ghostbusters on a series called "Really That Good," I feel like at that point it's fair game--characterizes the original film as making fun of movies with super developed lore for whatever's going on. The remake, he says, simply does what the original film ostensibly mocked or lampooned. Which, I mean, fair enough, but it seems to me that Ghostbusters--either Ghostbusters--should be understood in their particular media context. What this reading misses is that the context of the new film is of ubiquitous origin stories. This is an age characterized by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, defined around it. With the presence of the MCU acting as such a gravity well for blockbusters, it's inevitable that instead of spoofing over developed lore (how would that play, exactly, as relevant and meaningful) it's doing a dance with origins instead. We know where things will end up, but rather than falling into place easily, they emerge erratically.

So, the Ghostbusters logo comes from something spraypainted in the subway. Now, I'm pretty sure this film won me over just with the one joke in particular in this scene: Patty, major history nerd and subway attendant, declares that the graffiti artist is "using my subway as a studio!" and the artist angrily retorts, "This is my gallery, my studio is in Soho!" which is, let me tell you, the best commentary on the street art movement since Exit Through The Gift Shop. But anyway, the logo gets painted on the wall sort of purely out of spite. So rather than having this sort of vaunted origin, the thing that we're waiting for--the moment when we go aw yeah, it's the thing, they did the thing--is weirdly deliberately un-epic, deliberately played down in its origins, and circumstantial.

Which works really well in the sense that if this is a film about people who are exceptional in their specific fields but who are largely a bunch of weirdos, then these kinds of narrative turns underscore the circumstantial nature of the Ghostbusters actually saving the world.

I think that this is much more interesting than a mere retread of what the original film was doing. It's much more of-the-present-day. If we're looking at superhero mythmaking, this is an approach that directly addresses that tradition and lampoons it in ways that even, say, Deadpool didn't do, opting instead to play the origin story largely straight. two

For all that Deadpool emphasizes its subversive qualities, it's a film with a pretty solid straightforward origin story that works really well for the film. Much more like Ghostbusters is Guardians of the Galaxy which also mostly involves a bunch of weirdos and knuckleheads saving the universe because they're some of the assholes who live there.
But intriguingly in this film, unlike much fanfiction, and unlike Captain America: Civil War as I've described previously, we don't have this serial narrative dynamic where the trauma of the origin story is reiterated kind of endlessly or habitually or compulsively.

Now, don't get me wrong, we do get some origin story stuff here, with all the core characters being sort of cast out of their original jobs, and original comfort zones, in a way that to me resonates much more strongly to me than it does in the original movie, where this dynamic is sort of glossed over. This is the origin story on a character level though, not on the level of the kind of attendant baggage of being A Ghostbusters Film. If they pick up that thread from the original film, and extend it to the whole cast, it's because it makes for a solid basis to build the character work that Feig et al are actually interested in.

This kind of dynamic of engaging with the past and expectations really comes to the forefront in the big final fight sequence, which is full of nods to the past of the series in a way that... hasn't escaped really anyone's notice, though opinions on how to interpret these callbacks is predictably divided.

Like at one point they fight a bunch of freaky parade floats, in a delightfully weird scene, and one of the floats is the stay-puffed marshmallow man, who almost manages to crush them before Erin blows it up with a pocket knife she was given earlier in the film. It's a cute moment, but it's also interesting because it represents them battling through the monsters that to a large extent have defined Ghostbusters' legacy. It's a brief tour of enemies from... well, I'm pretty sure mostly from the first movie. I don't think anyone can claim to be surprised that they didn't bring back the spooky painting dude from the second film.

There's points where the film feels sort of weirdly cobbled togetherthree and as a result we never quite get a full look at the motivating personality of the villain. Nevertheless, there seems to be some sort of fixation on the past, a nostalgia dimension to what he's doing, which carries throughout the rest of the film in ways ranging from the obvious to the intriguingly subtle.

Though this might be just my perspective as someone who prefers the kind of extremely tight editing and plotting of say the Cornetto Trilogy
This is quite interesting given that the film is about ghosts. I mean, the film shades from the Hauntological into the Weird in the same way it shades between Horror and Science Fiction and Comedy, but nevertheless this is about things that have been in one way or another repressed sort of bubbling back up to the surface of reality horribly. And in encouraging the proliferation of ghosts, the villain inherently is kind of dredging up the past.

The film of course starts with the past being dredged up for Erin, in the form of an embarrassing book she wrote in her youth. This book is Erin's own sort or revenant, born of her own experience with the hauntological, returning despite her repression of this part of herself. And of course she does her best to shove all this back down again, but the ghosts, in whatever form they take real or metaphorical, can't be put back in the box without some real effort.

So, when Rowan uses his newfound powers to turn New York City into a "classic" version of itself, that move should be understood in this context--not just as a cool light show (though it certainly is that) but as something that has some deeper thematic resonances. Villainy in the film is being presented in the form of this character's nostalgia, his need to bring back a kind of purity in the past that he sees as buried under modern decadence. His conflict with the main characters plays out as a divide between a new that doesn't sort of totally override the past or try to simply repress it, and something that wishes to just override the new with the old entirely--themes that should, I would say, make any dedicated Ghostbusters fan quite happy.

All of this sets up quite logically the climax of the film, where the characters are presented with a choice deliberately reminiscent of the choice presented to the characters in the original film: the choice of what form the big bad will take in destroying the world. And in the original film this was largely an accident of them being in the presence of Gozer at the time. Here though there's no mystical significance, there's just a spiteful little asshole fucking with the people who have been a thorn in his side. So we immediately get this interesting contrast, another kind of perverse reiteration of the original.

And the characters try to get something that's cute and friendly and cuddly and so he transforms... into the Ghostbusters logo. He turns into this 2D cell animated rendition of the logo, no less! I mean, holy fuck, this is the kind of daring, the kind of media-mixing fuckery, that I love more than practically anything! But what we have here is another nod to this idea of nostalgia. It's this nostalgic image of the cartoon ghost, which is deliberately something that should represent security and evil stripped of its power, that's the whole fucking POINT of the logo design, and then Rowan takes it and warps it into this huge stonking nightmare entity.

It's critical to recognize in this that yes, yes the end of the film involves the character battling the logo of the film that this is a remake of. And yes, there's an element here of the new film grappling with the legacy of the old and trying to deal with its long shadow over popular culture. So, we get this sort of metatextual representation of the struggle with Ghostbusters' legacy, in the form of the characters fighting their own iconography.

But nevertheless, it only works as a joke, it only works as a gag, if we ALREADY ACCEPT THAT THE LOGO REPRESENTS SOMETHING PROTECTIVE. It only works if we identify the logo with... well, all the things that the Ghostbusters franchise is supposed to represent: these oddballs going out and taking a stand against scary supernatural menaces and winning! To say that this is an attack on the franchise ignores the fact that the operation being done here by the VILLAIN of the film is an attack on ideas that, apparently, the director and cast all consider important and meaningful, and which are shown to be ultimately triumphant.

And if Rowan's actions are so uncomfortably familiar to the "fans" of this franchise, then perhaps it's worth taking a step back and considering whether or not they really actually believe in any of the things that the original movie stood for at all.

Personally, I'd have some deep questions about whether I could call myself a true fan of Ghostbusters if my takeaway from this scene was that this remake didn't respect the franchise... but then, I actually pay attention to the films I watch instead of just staring slack-jawed at Sigourney Weaver's heaving bosom. I mean for fuck's sake, when you have a scene deliberately running in parallel with the scene from the original movie in which the monster takes on the form of "Something from my childhood, something that could never ever possibly destroy us"... like... you have to actively be not paying attention to TWO FILMS AT ONCE, one of which you're ostensibly a Tru Fan of, for the commentary to slide under your radar.

Now, look, I'm not going to claim that this film doesn't have issues with editing, a somewhat wandering plotline, and occasional over reliance on obvious ad libbing. 

And I'm not going to claim that the thematic content elevates it into the status of masterpiece.


But it does bother me that like...

Look.

Bob Chipman has a lengthy video explaining how the original film is secretly this super deep narrative about science vs superstition (read: religion). Which, whatever, fine, Moviebob is one of these vaguely liberal realist atheist types, if he wants his fable about the triumph of reason, he is honestly welcome to it, and even if I find the whole Nu Atheism thing to be at best kinda eye-rollingly self congratulatory, that doesn't necessarily mean I disagree with his interpretation. And, in fairness to Moviebob, despite the fact that I think some of his criticism of this film is off base and misses key thematic throughlines, he's fair to the film in a way that the rest of his wider milieu of Gen X critics can't seem to bring themselves to be.

So, when I say that this bothers me, know that I'm not calling out Moviebob specifically as Doing A Bad Thing here, but pointing to his analysis as representative of a key cultural dynamic:

We are not permitted to do the kind of deeply sympathetic thematic analysis to the new Ghostbusters that we can see Moviebob doing here to the old Ghostbusters. More broadly this can be generalized to new Blockbusters and old Blockbusters as well: affordances given Gen X classics are not given to comparable contemporary films.

In practical terms, of course, I can do whatever the fuck I want. I'm not going to pull a Milo and bleat on about "muh free speech!!" No one is actually able to effectively forbid me from writing this very article.

My point is rather that the spoiled manbaby set is quite eager and willing to scream down anyone who wants to give contemporary films like Ghostbusters their fair shake, and they're quite happy to ally with the very critics that they'd otherwise see as antagonists to do it!

I mean, look. Generation X has had this whole kinda developmental history in cinema not unlike what we've seen in games and comics where they've achieved cultural dominance and even ubiquity despite the nay-saying of elite cultural critics. Hell, this has arguably been going on since Jaws got snubbed at the awards shows in its day--this process that we see as previously "low" fields of production become "artistic" fields of production in which this whole milieu of fan-critics work ceaselessly to elevate the cultural capital of their pet media to the point where they can be sort of cashed out on again through various means (collectibles, or social clout coming from authority within a fandom, or on the side of the studios the ability to sell special editions of films in hi def remastered restored blu ray and so on).

We can see this in particular with films from the period of the original Ghostbusters--let's say from like 1980 to 2000, sort of arbitrarily, to really catch the time in which Gen X was really coming into its own as a youth consumer force. To pick one kind of egregious example, look at The Fifth Element, which for all the sort of high critical ambivalence is something I see generally lauded as this kind of awesome epic blockbuster experience.

Now contrast this with the reception given to Pacific Rim or Jupiter Ascending. These are films that are notable for two things: they're original properties, and they've received their fair share of bashing from people who see them as stupid or illogical or full of plot holes or whatever. And yet, are not all these charges true of a film like The Fifth Element, which has a wandering first half, outrageously bad acting, entire lengthy scenes which are barely connected to anything else (there's zero structural justification for the opening scene of the film, which never even manages to get resolved but is just sort of dropped for the most part), and is, I'm sorry, really, really racist and sexist. Yes, there's lots to like about the film (once the film finally starts picking up more Coen Bros style intersecting action). My point here is not that we should hate the film, or hate the original Ghostbusters for also being often creepy and sexist, or for fucking over the one black lead character, or for not really having much characterization compared to what we get from the more character-centered remake.

My point is that if we can fairly overlook these flaws in old blockbusters, new blockbusters, new sort of gutter media, deserves its fair shake too.

But apparently every generation has to go through the same bullshit canon argument over again. Now, personally, I would like to not have to do this bullshit. Watching pop critics battle against convention to establish whole new fields for analyzing blockbusters and B movies and schlock and so on, only to turn around and say, to stuff meaningful to my generation, and in particular to women and to queer people and to people of color, "But not like that though," is pretty disheartening. It seems less like there's a real interest here in embracing low culture as artistically valid, and more an interest in elevating one particular demographic's childhoods into the status of new unassailable canon.

I mean, you might reply that Ghostbusters as a remake is a special case, but that's why I'm using Jupiter Ascending and Pacific Rim as examples of modern blockbusters! You can't say that this generation needs to go off and do its own thing, because we've seen what happens! We can see what kind of response these new stories get. And we can see that nerds would rather spend money watching a shitty adaptation of an overhyped Batman comic than try something new.

So what the fuck are we supposed to do, exactly?

Ultimately, it might not matter that much. Ghostbusters is doing fine, and like I said, for all that naysayers will hypocritically try to scream down any attempts to analyze these films on their own terms, plenty of people seem to like what I have to say enough to fund this blog.

And that at the end of the day is what matters most to me, and what I'm aiming for here. Not that this film be elevated above the original, or that its structural problems be ignored, but that it should be treated as a film that's doing some interesting and cool things with the material it's given, and the context that it exists within.

If we're willing to see it, it's clear that there's a whole bunch of stuff we can do with this film, ideas we can dig into and meanings we can pull out.

And if we have to claw through the slime of a media culture dominated by ghosts who can't stand to see something new, well, I think making that attempt is worthwhile.

Storming the Ivory Tower is produced because of the generosity of my patrons. You, too, can become one of these generous patrons by subscribing to my Patreon. For $1 you can read the rough draft of this article; you can hear the podcast for this article for $3. And don't forget that for $5 you can read my most recent article collection A Bodiless and Timeless Persona: Essays on Homestuck and Theme, as well as my previous collections on My Little Pony and toxic masculinity in superhero media, Neighquiem for a Dream and My Superpower is Manpain.

3 comments:

  1. I'm going to wait for the paperback.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for another fantastic article. I was hoping that your gaze would wander to Ghostbusters and I wasn't disappointed. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie's theme of "women being ignored by men to disastrous consequences", especially in the context surrounding the film. (I'll be very interested to see how it's viewed in twenty years time.)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you for the great article. I've been search for a good analytical piece on the new Ghostbusters film. Most of the reviews I've see mainly focus on how this one is different from the old movie and treat any difference as a negative. The reverence people are expected to have for old blockbusters when compared to new ones really gets me to thinking.

    ReplyDelete

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Reload the Canons!